Never mind Canary Wharf. Forget about The Orbit. When it comes to East End landmarks, there’s only one that really captures our hearts. We’re talking, of course, about the mighty Bethnal Green gasholders: two masterpieces of Victorian ironwork that tower, stern and graceful, over the Regent’s Canal near Broadway Market.
Built in the nineteenth century to store domestic gas from the nearby Haggerston Gasworks (now the site of Haggerston Park), they’re one of our seven alternative wonders of London, a reminder of the area’s industrial past and a heavily Instagrammed local icon. There’s something about their huge size and delicate design that casts an irresistible magic over anyone straying down the towpath. But all that could come to an end soon: at least one of the gasholders is now threatened with demolition.
The National Grid, which owns the gasholder site, has hooked up with a property developer to build homes on its land in and around London. The partnership has already cleared a gasholder site in Battersea, and now attention is turning to the Bethnal Green Two – which, unlike similar examples in Bow and King’s Cross, aren’t protected by an English Heritage listing. In fact, they’ve been specifically excluded from listing until December 2020, by which time it may be too late: according to the developers, ‘It is considered likely one gasholder can be reused but that reusing both will be more challenging and requires further analysis.’
Following public consultations last month, a petition by the East End Waterway Group is gathering signatures to try and stop either of the gasholders being knocked down. London desperately needs more (actually affordable) housing, of course. But these majestic structures have been watching over the canal for more than a century – and if they can be repurposed rather than flattened, they could give future generations of East Enders the same magical thrill as they do today. Just this once, could we maybe just keep some nice old things?